Should EI payments be voluntary?

A couple of my favorite blogs (our friend Scott over at the Sorry Centrist and NB Politics) have picked up on a post by the decidedly debonair Clinton P. Desveaux – a seemingly self-styled rightist in the tradition of Ludwig Von Mises but paradoxically residing in Nova Scotia.

Mr. Desveaux would like to open up the debate on Employment Insurance. While I agree with Savoie, the Sorry One, and undoubtedly Von Mises on this subject, I think this is more or less a non-starter.

Let me remind some of you young ‘uns about our recent history on this subject. When Doug Young and Jean Cretien tried to tweak the EI system back in the early 1990s there were literal riots. Roads were blocked. Protests were widespread and ultimately in the next election almost every Liberal was booted out of NB including Young even though he put more gravy into his Bathurst riding than any other politician in history (not to mention he was a heavyweight in Cabinet).

You see, EI is now considered an entitlement program. Not a temporary insurance program when you lose your job. It is income supplementation for hundreds of thousands of people all across Canada (with a disporportionate share in Atl. Canada).

The reality is that what we need is economic development in communities where there is a dependancy on EI – real, year round jobs. And those jobs should be at wages that provide an incentive to work year round. $8 bucks/hour to work year round or $20 bucks/hour for 15 weeks and then $8 bucks/hour on EI for the rest of the year – you do the math.

So the political realities are this:
-Even tinkering with the EI system is political suicide in most of Atlantic Canada.
-Any substantial change needs to be linked to long term economic development strategy.
-Making EI ‘voluntary’ would mean scrapping the system completely. Anyone who makes over $57,000 isn’t even eligible to collect EI but they are the ones that pay in the most. So be clear EI is not Employment Insurance. EI is an income support program paid for – mostly – by folks that can never access it.

But on this important subject, I happened to be in a meeting not that long ago where I was told that the de facto strategy for reducing EI dependancy is to slowly let most of these communities decline to the point that there is limited dependancy. I have also heard this from another couple of credible sources. Please note this is not a formal strategy. It is not written down anywhere.

But I think that this is also a flawed strategy as a deep reduction in rural population will lead to a whole host of other problems.

I still maintain there must be a better way. A way that includes girding up these regions with real, year round jobs.